Urban Pioneers

| 3/27/2008 8:29:19 AM

chicago's north side.Shortly after I moved to Chicago’s far north side, I came home to a sign warning me of gangs of African American kids in white T-shirts and black do-rags who had recently been throwing rocks and bricks at random passersby. This apparently was happening in broad daylight and in busy areas of the half square mile or so around my building. I was skeptical, but I was also scared.

“Gangs are real,” says Eula Biss in the Believer, “but they are also conceptual. The word gang is frequently used to avoid using the word black in a way that might be offensive. For instance, by pairing it with a suggestion of fear.”

Biss describes her own experience living in my old neighborhood, an extremely diverse and densely populated spot as tense as it is vibrant. She writes eloquently about the thought patterns involved with trying to resist our assumptions about people:

One evening not long after we moved to Rogers Park, my husband and I met a group of black boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk across the street from our apartment building. The boys were weaving down the sidewalk, yelling for the sake of hearing their own voices, and drinking from forty-ounce bottles of beer. As we stepped off the sidewalk and began crossing the street toward our apartment, one boy yelled, “Don’t be afraid of us!” I looked back over my shoulder as I stepped into the street and the boy passed on his bike so that I saw him looking back at me also, and then he yelled again, directly at me, “Don’t be afraid of us!”

I wanted to yell back, “Don’t worry, we aren’t!” but I was, in fact, afraid to engage the boys, afraid to draw attention to my husband and myself, afraid of how my claim not to be afraid might be misunderstood as bravado begging a challenge, so I simply let my eyes meet the boy’s eyes before I turned, disturbed, toward the tall iron gate in front of my apartment building, a gate that gives the appearance of being locked but is in fact always open.

It’s a thoughtful essay, one that asks tough questions about a difficult subject without condemning anyone. It’s also noteworthy for its framing device: a provocative reading of Little House on the Prairie as a deeply ambivalent take on American pioneerism—an ambivalence echoed by Biss and by many who share her position as a privileged settler in a troubled urban frontier.

Steven Johnson
3/31/2008 7:47:36 PM

That fear that a number posters expressed, when crossing paths with a Black youth or group of Black youth, is the same discomfort felt by Blacks when we encounter the police. Or when encountering a group of young white men. (Bad things have been known to happen e.g. to James Byrd who was dragged to pieces a few years ago. Be aware it cuts both ways.

3/31/2008 3:13:15 PM

Do people really think that kids winging rocks (or pieces of fruit, or whatever) at others is ever "an idle thing to do?" Whether you choose to see it as a "test" (of power) or an act of aggression, anger, or contempt, behavior like this is unacceptable. It's designed to freak people out, and it usually works. And then (if they're white) they're supposed to feel guilty about their assumptions on top of it? I'll never forget an incident that happened to me in Oakland several years ago. I was biking with my boyfriend down a street near the railroad tracks, when I saw a group of black boys coming towards me on their bikes. It didn't even OCCUR to me to be afraid: these were young kids, maybe 13 and under, playing outside. I didn't have a preconceived idea of them a "gang" that should be feared. (I'd spent a year living in West Africa, and being the only person in large crowds of black people is not innately terrifying to me.) But biking in Oakland, CA, that day, I should have had my guard up and shouldn't have stopped or responded to them if I could possibly help it. At that point, my boyfriend, who was riding some distance behind me on his bike, shouted to me: "Run!" He was a streetwise African American who grew up in the ghetto of Indianapolis. One boy said to me in obvious surprise: "Is he your boyfriend?" I said Yes, and used that moment to take off as fast as I could, leaving my boyfriend to scold the boys. It was only later that I realized the close call I'd just had. If I'd been alone that day, at the very least I would have walked home without a bike. So yeah, I notice the fear creep in whenever I see a group of African American boys or young men on a street I'm biking on. Most of the time my assumptions prove unfounded, but it's human conditioning to want to be ready for the times when it's not. And isn't this "thought patt

Hilary Reeves
3/28/2008 12:02:35 PM

I lived in Baltimore for about 10 years in the 1990s. I remember one day shortly after I moved there that a bunch of kids winged small rocks at me as I walked down the block. It just seemed an idle thing to do on their part. And, once we were out of range of each other, there was little chance for harm. It only happened once, but it was memorable. Kind of jeering, kind of a test to see if I'd freak out. It was a lively neighborhood, with a drug market several blocks away--everyone knew not to walk in that direction. But, the block we lived on was great-- very mixed races & people & professions. There was a halfway house across the street. Librarians, restauranteurs, lawyers, old guys living on fixed incomes. Baltimore wasn't always an easy mix but it was more mixed in terms of races & incomes than anywhere else I've lived and that was good.

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